By Ian Todd
December 24 2011
Bristol top the Championship table at Christmas with a well-organised performance that totally negated the strengths of second-placed Bedford. A dominant forward performance laid and solid defence laid the foundations for Otto's two tries. But we know all too well that topping the league is no guarantee of a successful season
On a chilly evening it was high-scoring Bedford who made the early running and took and early 0 – 3 lead from, and no surprise here, a Pritchard penalty. However, as teams so often do, the visitors then gave away soft points to even things up. Good driving play from the forwards took Bristol to the edge of the Bedford 22 where Bedford strayed offside. With the penalty coming Tristan Roberts was under no pressure, but his drop-goal effort was spot on.
The fly-half edged his team in front with a well struck penalty as Bristol’s aggressive and well organised defence gave Bedford little space in which to launch their dangerous backline. Errors crept in to the Bedford game as the pack snuffed out any danger at the setpiece and slowed down ball at the ruck. Out wide Bedford found themselves hurried as they attempted to find a way to break through. Bristol received their reward for this excellent play when deserved man-of-the-match, Fautua Otto, charged down a kick. He collected the ball well and showed the defenders a clean pair of heels as he raced in behind the posts for a converted try and a 13 – 3 lead.
He then halted Pritchard in his tracks with a perfectly executed tackle that smashed the fullback to the ground and dislodged the ball in the process. One of his other tackles was perhaps less well executed and he was rightly penalised to allow Sharp to narrow the gap to 13 – 6. Despite this setback, Bristol appeared entirely comfortable with their well-executed game plan that contained the visitors and permitted the hosts to pick up points when the inevitable mistakes occurred. Roberts took the chances proffered and Bristol went in at half time leading 19 – 6.
Surely Bedford wouldn’t continue with their strategy in the second half? At first it appeared not when they started the half with some good kicks that took full advantage of the wind to turn the Bristol pack. However, they failed to preserve with the tactic and Bristol were able to maintain their stranglehold on the game. The difference in approach was emphasised with a superb try for Bristol.
The pack launched a marvellous driving maul from just outside their 22 to well into the Bedford half. The referee gave a couple of penalties as the maul advanced inexorably, but played advantage each time. Finally, the ball was flipped out and a sharply angled run from Junior Fatialofa fixed the fringe defence and Jack Tovey launched a run of his own that took him and the ball away from Fatialofa’s distraction and sent him into space. He was closed down but was well supported by Otto who gratefully latched on to Tovey’s neat pass. Otto went over by the posts, Roberts duly converted for 26 – 6.
And that was it for scoring action! Bedford by no means gave up and, indeed looked to have scored after the their only real sustained pressure allowed Veenendall to smash his way to the line. It looked a definite try but the referee decided to go to the TMO. Bedford had trotted back, Bristol had gathered behind the posts and the crowd had returned to nattering away (as seemed to be the case for much of the second half, at least where I was standing). But it was no try! I’ve seen this since on the TV and, quite rightly, the ball was clearly dropped just before going over). I must say, if the TMO hadn’t been available the try would have been given and no one would have objected. In fact it was actually a try-saving tackle from Otto who hunted down his man and did enough to force the ball from his grasp. Try scorer and saver!
Bristol were not to be troubled again but the half continued in a curiously meandering way with the crowd highly distracted and in an end-of-term mood that either reflected or maybe encouraged the style of play. Bristol snuffed out any attempts by Bedford to get back in to the game and, creditably, were still tackling fiercely right up to the end. Indeed, they forced a penalty at the death that Roberts, rather than go for the posts or take the scrum, sent to touch to bring the game to an end.